Unless it's December 31st and you're trying to come up with some personal New Year's resolutions, strategic planning is something that's typically done as a group. In any given company, it's as necessary and expected as office furniture -- and about as exciting. Every couple of years, the senior managers get together for an incredibly long, often painful process of refreshing the strategic plan. 

Ideally, a strategic plan provides goals and direction. It is an aspirational but realistic guide to the choices a business will make as they work towards those goals over a number of years.
But what's the big risk in botching your strategic plan? The risk is that the earth, business, and your customers are still in motion. Without regular, effective strategic planning, your company could wind up chasing goals that aren't attainable anymore, or playing by rules that stopped being relevant years ago. In other words, without strategic planning, you could get left in the dust.

The act of strategic planning presumes meetings and charts, group exercises and, in the end, a multi-page, multi-pronged and polished document. At best, this document can hope to grow up to be a paperweight and sit atop all of the other ignored guidance documents on everyone's desks. Strategic planning fails to live up to its name and to our expectations almost every single time we do it.

So, what's wrong? Why does strategic planning so often fail to do what it intends to do? The problem is part process and part people.

The process problem is that we approach strategic planning as a group exercise. After spending literally hundreds of hours watching groups try to think together, I can assure you that no (okay, very few) brilliant strategic ideas come out when people gather.

The people problem is a touchy one. People invited to strategic planning efforts get there because of their title and their position -- not because of their insight, energy, optimism, or even knowledge of the real issues facing the organization. They're there because they have to be. Rarely do invitees approach planning efforts with anything more than feigned enthusiasm. They're tired and cynical. The only thing they look forward to is getting their turn to talk. So often, strategic planning becomes an exercise in balancing egos and airtime -- not truly flushing out the problems to be solved.

So, what could we all do better to avoid these process and people pitfalls?

  1. First, recognize that the strategy part of strategic planning is better done upfront and individually rather than in a group. Organizations should be training their staff on an ongoing basis to build critical thinking skills, stay connected with customers and the broader industry, and anticipate problems. These skills will make them more able to diagnose problems in the company and keep abreast of what's trending in their market. Then, instead of bringing groups together, you can challenge the managers (at a minimum -- you could include other members of the staff in this as well) to state the biggest problem they see facing the organization and how they'd propose to fix it. From there, you can either set up an organic process by which managers must build coalitions of support to move their solution forward, or, if you're the team leader, you could simply pick the solutions that you see as most viable. 
  2. Second, get in the habit of creating mixed planning teams. There is no reason that the most important planning exercise should be limited to those with certain titles. They might have earned the promotion, but they shouldn't be the default group included. At a minimum, include representatives from various tiers in the organization, including junior staff and back-office support functions. If you're really ambitious, add a representative customer and industry expert. Bringing in external perspectives is the best way to ensure you're not stuck in an echo chamber and that this critical planning process doesn't become just another thing to do among your senior executives. Most people tend to be on their best, most professional behavior when there is an outsider in the room -- so facilitating the conversation becomes easier, as well.

Strategic planning is how you stop doing the same things and expecting a different result. Without thinking forward, we're sure to be left behind by the industry and our customers. Unfortunately, many organizations have flawed processes and are unable to get the right people at the table for a productive discussion. By encouraging individual strategic thinking and introducing fresh perspectives into the discussion, we can ensure that the solutions we arrive at are more relevant and actionable. 

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